The Middle Eastern spice sumac is a rare sighting in American cuisine.
It comes from a flowering plant in the same family as cashew and mango (Anacardiaceae). This shrub or small tree produces conical clusters of bright purple-red berries. These are dried and ground to make sumac, also known as summaq in Arabic-English translations.
Dried raw sumac spice is purplish-brown with a gritty texture. It’s not a fine powder.
What sumac tastes like is salty lemon zest. It’s tart and acidic, but less so than lemon. For cooking, it’s used to add a tangy flavor to meats, vegetables, rice, and salads like fattoush.
Za’atar spice contains sumac, along with thyme, roasted sesame seeds, marjoram, oregano, and salt. Za’atar is considered the condiment king in the Middle East.
While it’s most known for that part of the world, Native Americans eat it too. Long before Christopher Columbus set sail.
Rhus coriaria is the type of sumac that’s most common. Also called Sicilian sumac because it’s grown in southern Italy. In the Arabic and Islamic world, Iran is a major exporter of the crop, as well as a heavy consumer of it.
Rhus glabra, called smooth or white sumac, can be found in all 48 states of the continental US. Native Americans used the shoots for salad-like dishes.
Rhus typhina, called staghorn sumac, grows in the eastern and Midwest US. It’s one of the largest species, with edible red berries which are less tart. The Navajo Indians used this to make a sumac lemonade flavored iced tea, minus the lemon. It’s called chiilchin.
There are only 35 true species in the Rhus plant genus. Reports of 250+ are outdated.
Related to poison ivy, poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) was incorrectly included in the genus until it was re-classified as a new species. Likewise for hundreds of other similar looking bushes, ivies and vines that produce white and red berries.
Identifying poison sumac – which are different species – from the real thing requires a skilled understanding in subtle differences of leaves, flowers, bark, and berries.
This is why picking some from your backyard isn’t recommend. There’s a good chance it may be a toxic imitator.
Please keep in mind that all of the following are preliminary findings and remain unproven. This ingredient/supplement should not be used to treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
1. Highest antioxidant spice
Whether it’s ORAC, FRAP, DPPH, or another laboratory method of measuring antioxidant activity, this spice usually gets first place. At least when it’s from the common Rhus coriaria or the Rhus typhina (staghorn) varieties.
As previously reported by the USDA, the spice has measured as having an ORAC of 312,400. Gallic acid is the most prevalent antioxidant in the plant. (1)
It has 66 times more antioxidants the blueberries.
Those have an ORAC of “only” 4,669. Though keep in mind that’s on an equal weight basis, comparing 100g (3.5 oz) of each. Eating that many blueberries is easy to do. With the spice, you’re probably eating 5-10% of that amount per serving, at most.
2. Anti-cancer activity in lab research
Now to be clear, if there are benefits for humans, they remain totally unproven.
There are no human clinical studies.
However in lab research – think Petri dishes and rodents – there is quite a bit of data showing anti-proliferative activity.
When exponentially growing HT-29 colon cancer cells in the lab were treated with Rhus coriaria (RCE), their viability was “significantly inhibited” through multiple pathways (Beclin-1-independent autophagy and subsequent caspase-7-dependent apoptosis).
That highest dose you see on that chart – 600 ug/mL – is equal to a mere 0.06% concentration. (2)
Rhus coriaria has also been found to suppress breast cancer growth in the lab through several actions (inhibition of STAT3, NFKB and nitric oxide pathways). (3) (4)
At least one study suggests that sumac tree resin inhibits angiogenesis – which is the growth of new blood vessels in tumors – better than other parts of the plant. (5)
Staghorn sumac has also been tested on cultured breast cancers and those Canadian scientists said the “…extract would be a promising chemotherapeutic drug conjugate in cancer chemotherapy.” (6)
Rhus succedanea, better known as the Japanese wax tree, has shown anti-leukemia activity. (7)
There are two human clinical trials involving Chinese lacquer tree. Formally known as Rhus verniciflua Stokes, it’s now Toxicodendron vernicifluum, as it’s no longer counted as a true sumac species.
Both of those took place in South Korea. Patients with metastatic colorectal cancer and metastatic pancreatic cancer participated.
In both, it was used adjacently to their normal medical treatments. At the end of each study, overall survival rates were higher in the patients taking that plant extract, however these were small studies that only looked at 1-year survival rates. (8) (9)
In the lab, that same species has been studied for ovarian cancer and other types, too. (10)
Back to the most common species of sumac used for spice – Rhus Coriaria – there is one clinical trial which used it. However the focus of it was on chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting (CINV) and how to reduce that side effect. They were not evaluating anti-cancer activity. (11)
If you search the PubMed database for sumac and cancer, you will get around 100 results. However the majority of them involve what was formally known as Rhus verniciflua Stokes (now Toxicodendron vernicifluum). It’s a “poison sumac” containing toxic phenolic compounds known as urushiols. (12)
That being said, Rhus verniciflua Stokes/Toxicodendron vernicifluum still is in the same family as the species we eat (Rhus coriaria). That edible species has a fair amount of cancer research on it too, but just not as much.
3. May lower LDL cholesterol
When the sumac Persian spice made up 1.5% of the diet for rabbits, there was a “significantly lower level of cholesterol” observed. Similar happens in rats. (13) (14)
How about humans?
In just the past couple of years, a few randomized, double-blinded, and placebo-controlled clinical trials have also observed this.
Registered with ClinicalTrials.gov, the above chart comes from one where sumac supplement capsules were taken for 6 weeks. The dosage was 1,000 mg per day. For those who were overweight (middle graph) they experienced:
- Reduced LDL cholesterol (the bad kind)
- Increased HDL cholesterol (the good kind)
Another trial from Iran had 72 obese teens and young adults participate. During the 1 month trial where 500 mg of powdered sumac berries were taken 3x daily, there was a “considerable” reduction in total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides. (15) (16)
4. May lower blood pressure
In alternative medicine of the Middle East, using sumac for high blood pressure is a popular practice, primarily in the form of decoctions. It may be an anti-hypertensive herb according to preliminary studies. (17)
Cells treated in the lab with low concentrations of ground sumac tannins have been found to reduce vascular smooth muscle cell (VSMC) migration by 62%. That’s a major contributor to atherosclerosis, which is the stiffening of arteries that comes with aging. (18)
Only one human trial has reported this benefit and it wasn’t the primary focus. Among the 30 adults with high cholesterol, those in the sumac group experienced a slight decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. (19)
5. May be good for diabetes
Even after a single dose, in diabetic rats the sumac berries have been found to reduce postprandial blood glucose (blood sugar after eating) by a staggering 24% at 5 hours. (20)
In fact, there are over a dozen studies involving rats and mice that report it improving insulin resistance, lowering blood sugar, and boosting leptin levels (AKA the “satiety hormone” that suppresses your appetite). (21) (22) (23)
Can it do this in humans?
Only a couple studies have been done with people. To give you an idea as to what those results are looking like…
In plain English, using sumac spice for diabetes appears to hold promise.
There was a decrease in insulin, C-reactive protein, and increased sensitivity to insulin among other parameters. (24)
In traditional medicine, sumac tea has been used for diabetes. Further clinical research is needed to validate this purported benefit.
6. Weight loss by blocking fat
When extracts were tested in pig pancreatic tissue, there was pronounced anti-lipase activity.
When the sumac dosage was 300 mg/mL and above, the benefit was as good as orlistat (Alli, Xenical) which is a medication used for obesity. It works by inhibiting pancreatic lipase, which is an enzyme secreted by the pancreas that helps breaks down fats for digestion. When fats are not fully broken down, fewer calories from them get absorbed.
The raw conventional and organic sumac berries both produced similar results. (25)
It’s too early to claim sumac for weight loss, but this supports the possibility of it being a diet remedy. It’s already considered to be one in some cultures.
7. Mitigating bone loss
No matter how healthy you are, age-related bone loss is a fact of life. It’s why your parents seem so short when you’re in your 20’s… and why you will seem short to others someday!
In a rat study of experimental periodontitis (gum infection), their alveolar bone loss was measured.
That’s bone which connects to teeth. Erosion with aging is major cause of dental problems and complicates fixes, like dental implants and dentures, since you may not have enough bone to attach them to.
They were split into 3 groups and those treated with sumac extract experienced significantly less bone loss versus the non-ligated (control group). (26)
Unfortunately no human research exists, so this is very preliminary.
8. Antibacterial against oral pathogens
Perhaps it can help teeth in more ways than one.
In a lab study, a water-based extract of sumac was found to decrease biofilm formation on orthodontic wire when caused by these 5 common culprits:
- Streptococcus mutans
- Streptococcus sobrinus
- Streptococcus sanguinis
- Streptococcus salivarius
- Enterococcus faecalis
“Rhus coriaria L. water extract had significant antibacterial properties against five common oral bacteria and was able to inhibit bacterial biofilm formation on orthodontic wire. Further investigations are recommended for widespread clinical use of this extract.”
Not proof, but promising. Especially considering that the minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC) was found to be as low as 0.390 mg/ml. That’s a strength of just 0.039%. (27)
Adverse reactions for eating sumac spice are uncommon and may include:
Since it is in the same family as cashew, those with an allergy to this tree nut should consult a doctor before eating. Those with a mango allergy should also take note since both trees are in the same family.
Skin dermatitis, rashes, and itching from sumac spice due to urushiol content is a myth. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac all contain urushiol. These have been re-categorized to the plant genus Toxicodendron. That’s different than the Rhus genus, which encompasses the Arabic spice and staghorn sumac from North America. (28)
Undesired weight loss
While most would consider this a benefit, those who are underweight and have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight should avoid eating sumac daily. This is because of the possible anti-lipase activity, which partially blocks the absorption of fat in the small intestines.
Unknown pregnancy safety
Can you eat sumac when pregnant?
Herbs and spices to avoid during pregnancy include uterine stimulants and those that disrupt the menstrual cycle. Those actions can increase the risk of miscarriage. Sumac berries and tea haven’t been studied for those. Nor have pregnant women or animals in general been studied.
The quercetin in sumac is a potent antioxidant that demonstrates both anti-cancer benefits and mutagenic side effects in research. In a purely theoretical sense, the latter could be of concern to birth defects risk. Oxidizing enzymes and alkaline pH levels are known to inactivate the mutagenic effect. (29) (30)
Avoiding high amounts of the spice and sumac tea while pregnant is recommended, until safety data is available.
Statins to lower cholesterol, blood pressure medicines, and diabetic treatments may all be adversely affected. When high amounts of sumac are taken with them, the result might be too low of a drop.
Best type to buy
A sumac substitute in cooking is 3 parts lemon zest and 1 part salt. It’s a good alternative to replicate the taste in recipes. For fattoush salad, lemon juice can also be used.
As far as the antioxidants though, you can’t replicate those levels!
Even fresh lemon skin only has an ORAC of 2,740… that’s less than 1% of the value.
Stick with the real thing, not a substitute. By a significant margin, sumac is the spice with the most antioxidants.
Where to buy sumac near me?
This is a hard spice to find. Stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts will be your best bet. Even there, we don’t always find it in-stock.
Middle Eastern supermarkets will almost certainly have it, though it will likely be non-organic and loaded with salt.
And that’s the catch.
Whether it’s as part of the za’atar blend, or as a stand-alone in the form of ground berries, almost every brand adds salt and lots of it!
Sadaf and Ziyard are probably the two most popular “genuine” Middle Eastern brands of ground sumac. Their price per ounce is low, but their salt content is high – up to 200 mg per teaspoon!
Remember, it already has an uncanny salty flavor which is natural and low in sodium. There’s no need to ruin that health perk by adding actual salt.
The best sumac brand is Spicely Organic. It’s non-GMO, USDA certified organic, certified gluten free, vegan, and contains less than 1% salt.
You can find it for sale at some specialty grocers in 2 oz. jar but we prefer to buy the 1 lb bulk bag on Amazon.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.